Transparency Needed, But Fought, Over NYPD Spying
Above Photo: John Miller appearing on his former employer, ABC News, representing his current employer, the NYPD.
To Defeat Transparency, NYPD Turns to Journalist-Turned-Cop-Turned-Journalist-Turned-Cop
The biggest, most resourced police department in the world likes to work in the shadows. You want to question that? You’re probably a terrorist enabler.
Last week, the New York City Council held hearings on proposed legislation calling on the New York Police Department to be more transparent with how they surveil and spy on the public. Police officials, as they often do, proceeded to tell local lawmakers to get lost. Requests for more information and possibly a public comment period on NYPD spying tactics, which have reached sci-fi levels, were called “insane” and met with suggestions that ISIS terrorists would be given a “roadmap” to attacking the city.
Conservative media outlets, predictably, came out shrieking in defense of the police and of surveillance. The New York Post (6/18/17) published the department’s testimony from the hearing and called it an op-ed, literally regurgitating the police line word for word for its readers. Not to be left behind by their fellow Rupert Murdoch employees, editorialists at the Wall Street Journal (“A Terrorist’s Guide to New York City: The Left Would Show Jihadists How the Cops Prevent Attacks,” 6/19/17) chimed in with admiration for police and full-throated disgust at those pushing the legislation:
The New York City Council is the distilled political essence of modern progressivism, which means it can be dangerous to public health and safety… The effort is backed by such anti-antiterror stalwarts as the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Brennan Center. Manhattan Democrat Daniel Garodnick, a co-sponsor, says the measure would enhance public trust by giving citizens more knowledge about policing techniques.
We’ll see how long that trust lasts if the bill makes it easier for terrorists to thwart or evade the NYPD’s antiterror methods. That’s the legitimate worry of police who rely on technology and surveillance to prevent mass murder. A jihadist bombed Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood as recently as September and the department maintains on average three or four active terrorist investigations at any one time. John Miller, the NYPD’s counterterror chief, says police have foiled at least 25 major terror attacks since 9/11.
Much as the NYPD likes to operate in the shadows, some of their officials are pretty well-versed in using the media limelight to argue against transparency. Exhibit A is John Miller, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism. A former FBI and NYPD spokesperson as well as a former network TV reporter, Miller has spun the revolving door between law enforcement and media like perhaps no one else. Back in 2013, as a correspondent on 60 Minutes, Miller offered a CIA deputy director a cushy platform, joining him in criticizing NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and agreeing that the public probably shouldn’t be aware of intelligence-gathering tactics (FAIR.org, 10/29/13). Sound familiar?
A couple of months later, Miller did another softball segment (FAIR Action Alert, 12/16/13), this time with former NSA head Keith Alexander, who’s been accused of lying to Congress about the agency’s surveillance of Americans. Days later, Miller would rejoin the NYPD (he did a previous stint in the 1990s), where he’s been helping with the department’s counterterrorism public relations ever since (City Limits, 3/28/16).
That’s why it wasn’t a surprise that Miller was back on cable television a few days ago, forecasting an apocalypse if the recently proposed NYPD surveillance oversight bills were passed (Morning Joe, 6/16/17). No longer bogged down by having to put on the front of a journalist, Miller was now on the other side of the table, disparaging the City Council’s attempts at transparency (modest ones, at that) to MSNBC‘s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, the daughter of former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.
While the local fight over police oversight in many ways reflects the broader civil liberties debate around surveillance—with Miller intertwined in both—the outsized media influence of the NYPD was clear. In less than a week, the police department had, with the help of the Post, Journal and MSNBC, become the loudest voice in the room, drowning out elected officials, as well as national and city-based civil liberties groups. What other municipal agency in this country could take their case to national television before its mayor had even publicly weighed in?
Not only does the NYPD have quick and unfettered access to the national megaphone (which MSNBC has apparently yet to offer to supporters of the transparency bill), it also has an extensive track record of overstating the threat of legislation and reform. In 1992, cops rioted at City Hall when the lawmakers wanted to create a civilian review board. A few years ago, the department stoked fear, with the help of local tabloids (New York Daily News, 7/13/13), by implying that city streets would run red with blood if its Stop and Frisk program were curbed.
So while Miller and the NYPD strategically exaggerate the impact of this current legislation, known as the POST Act, it’s important to note that their fear-mongering efforts in the press are designed to pull the political goalposts to the right by presenting basic requests for transparency (nothing in the legislation fundamentally curbs NYPD surveillance abilities) as a giveaway to terrorists. Those who might actually want the police’s spying apparatus reduced or done away with—something that’s completely out of the bounds as they’ve been drawn—well, you might just be a terrorist yourself.
And though one might imagine or hope that the media, whose job it is to strive for transparency, would be in the forefront of efforts for more information from law enforcement, most have either supported the NYPD or sat back and simply reported their point of view, allowing cops to define the narrative. But hey that’s what Miller, the NYPD’s journalist-turned-cop-turned-journalist-turned-cop would be pretty useful for, isn’t it?
The ‘Nutty’ Idea That NYPD Targets Innocent Civilians
The NYPD’s John Miller also appeared on local station WNYM, part of the right-wing Salem Media Group. “The activists have in their mind this idea that police departments in cities like New York run massive surveillance programs targeting innocent civilians for no reason,” he told host John Catsimatidis (AM New York, 6/18/17). “Now, that’s nutty. I mean why would we do that? How could we do that? And how would it make sense?”
Miller is part of a department that has stopped and frisked more than 5 million people since 2002—nine out of ten of whom were innocent civilians, mostly black and Latino young men. It has infiltrated the Black Lives Matter movement, and also routinely defied a decades-old court order against political surveillance known as the Handschu Rules.
The NYPD is also under court-ordered sanctions stemming from its “Demographics Unit,” described by the New York Times (3/6/17) as
a secret squad of plainclothes officers that eavesdropped on conversations in cafes, making notes about political conversations. They chatted to store owners about their views on drone strikes and international affairs and made a note when they saw Qurans, religious calendars or customers gathering after attending nearby mosques.
But a massive surveillance program targeting innocent civilians? That’s nutty.